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SPECIAL SECTION / BASEBALL 2001

Young Guns Are Good but Not Best in the West

Season preview: Angels have plenty of power, but their rotation has neither the credentials nor depth of those in Oakland and Seattle.

April 01, 2001|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was one of those early March declarations, laced with the kind of spring-training optimism that is pervasive in baseball camps across Arizona and Florida but warranted in only a few.

Angel Manager Mike Scioscia, so confident in pitchers Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn and Scott Schoeneweis, put his young starters up against Oakland's young trio of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, and Seattle's young trio of Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Gil Meche, and said: "I think our three guys can match those guys pitch for pitch."

Scioscia should be enthused about his young arms. Ortiz, for years the Angels' top prospect, finished strong last September, had a great spring and appears to be gaining a level of maturity and consistency to match his above-average major league repertoire.

Washburn has proved he can win in the big leagues when physically sound, and Schoeneweis, though he struggled in the second half of 2000, is a durable left-hander who kept the Angels in most of the games he started.

But when compared to the arms of the their American League West rivals, Scioscia's vision for his young Angels and reality simply don't match up.

Oakland's trio of Hudson, Zito and Mulder combined to go 36-20 with a 4.29 earned-run average, 335 strikeouts and 196 walks in 449 innings last season, leading the A's to the division title. Hudson went 20-6 and finished second in AL Cy Young Award balloting, and Zito beat the Yankees in a pressure-packed playoff game in New York.

Seattle's Garcia, Halama and Meche went 27-18 with a 4.40 ERA, 226 strikeouts and 160 walks in 376 2/3 innings, leading the Mariners to a wild-card berth, and Garcia beat the Yankees twice during the AL championship series.

Ortiz, Washburn and Schoeneweis combined to go 22-18 with a 4.95 ERA, 200 strikeouts and 159 walks in 365 2/3 innings to help the Angels to an 82-80 record and third-place finish in the West. None of the three has appeared in a playoff game.

Scioscia's observation also fails to acknowledge that rotations consist of five pitchers, not three, and this is another area in which the Angels have matchup problems.

Filling out Oakland's staff is right-hander Gil Heredia, 15-11 with a 4.12 ERA last season, and Cory Lidle, who was impressive enough this spring that the A's traded Omar Olivares.

Seattle's staff includes veteran right-hander Aaron Sele, who went 17-10 with a 4.51 ERA in 2000, veteran left-hander Jamie Moyer, who went 13-10 with a 5.49 ERA, and veteran right-hander Paul Abbott, who went 9-7 with a 4.22 ERA and will fill in for the injured Meche in the first half of 2001.

The Angels counter with journeyman right-hander Pat Rapp, who is playing for his sixth team in five years and has one winning record in eight big league seasons, and Ismael Valdes, who is a mere shadow of the right-hander who pitched so well for the Dodgers a few years ago and who was pounded this spring--opponents hit .429 against him.

"I have a lot of confidence that if healthy, these guys will perform at a level to keep us in contention," Scioscia said. "We were a championship-caliber staff last year, barring injuries."

Of course, when have the Angels ever barred injuries?

Washburn went on the disabled list three times in 2000 and will open 2001 on the DL because of strep throat, Schoeneweis missed six weeks of 2000 because of a rib-cage injury, and Ortiz's shoulder will always be a concern because he pitched the entire 2000 season with a slight tear.

The Angels used 16 starting pitchers last season, spackling their rotation during an injury-marred August and September in which the Angels survived but hardly thrived. Though they remained on the fringe of the division and wild-card races, they didn't really contend.

This team can't afford that many injuries in 2001. Because of trades (Kent Bottenfield, Seth Etherton) and attrition (Ken Hill, Tim Belcher, Scott Karl, Kent Mercker), the Angels don't have the number of major league-ready pitchers they had last year.

Matt Wise, who will replace Washburn for the first week of the season, is an attractive option, but the depth chart tails off from there, with pitchers such as Brian Cooper, Scot Shields and Steve Green next in line. The Angels have better pitching prospects lower in their farm system, but they don't want to rush them to the big leagues.

"Whether it's us or other teams, it always seems to come down to who's healthiest," Angel right fielder Tim Salmon said. "That's a big issue for us because we don't have the depth in some areas like Seattle has with pitching and Texas has with its lineup. We can't handle too many more blows."

The Angels already absorbed a huge one when first baseman Mo Vaughn, who had 36 home runs and 117 runs batted in last season, underwent season-ending surgery for a ruptured biceps tendon in February.

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